Campus News

UK, PBS Tell Appalachia's Ecological Story


LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 29, 2010) One acre of forest in the Great Smoky Mountains supports more species of trees than in all of Europe.

"These mountains are great ecosystems in their own right," said University of Kentucky history professor Ronald Eller. "Appalachia houses some of the greatest rainforests in the world."

Eller, joined by UK English professor Gurney Norman and a host of leading Appalachian authorities, travel through history and topography to tell the region's story from the ground up in "Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People," a four-part series airing Thursdays April 29-May 20 on PBS, including on Kentucky Educational Television.  Visit the KET website and click on "Appalachia:  A History of Mountains and People" for schedule information.

This is America’s first environmental history series, according to the network. "This documentary is unique and appropriate for our times," said Eller. "With America's new focus on a green society and a new global consciousness, the project shows the importance of the Appalachian region in an environmental context."

"Such a film as 'Appalachia' is itself media, but it points us to the physical reality of the unmediated world around us, inspiring us, perhaps, to be more fully engaged in it," adds Norman.

The series focuses on the impact of the land on Appalachian culture and history. "We discuss our own meanings of the land and place," said Eller. "The landscape is personalized, beginning with the names of various mountains, their formation, the flora and fauna and then their eventual destruction. Decapitating a mountain changes the culture of its community."

"Appalachia" was a decade in the making and includes leading Appalachian scientists, historians and artists, including author Barbara Kingsolver and Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist E.O. Wilson, who fill the screen with colorful stories, fascinating perspectives and scientific anecdotes.

"The beautiful photography of the mountains in all seasons is breathtaking. The scenes give us a picture of what the original, pristine natural world looked like," said Norman. "The series is so beautiful, I think of 'Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People' as a magnificent poem that holds appeal for everyone."

Eller and Norman, who have been involved since the beginning of the project, served on the production Advisory Board and also appear on camera.

"So much of the world's view of Appalachia comes from stereotypes - both positive and negative," said Eller, a native Appalachian whose family has resided in the mountains of North Carolina since the pre-Revolutionary era. "Most of the attention is placed on a culture of poverty or a romanticized relationship to the land; neither is the true model of Appalachia."

According to Eller, who has used the PBS documentary this semester in his Appalachian History class at UK, the mountains mean something different to everyone in the region. "Appalachia is a diverse place," he explained. "This diversity is drawn together through the land and the mountain experiences. In many ways that's the Appalachian story - a struggle to protect place and create a positive life."

Despite Appalachia's struggle with settlement and industrialization through strip mining and mountain topping, the series does end on a hopeful note with the potential revival of the native chestnut tree. During the 20th century, the timber industry in combination with diseases from the north destroyed the Appalachian chestnut population. Scientists have recently developed new varieties that combine American and Chinese strains to revive the chestnut tree population.

"Despite what we have done to the environment, it can still come back," said Eller.  "But if we continue to abuse our land, we destroy our way of life and ourselves."

"The United States is the nation, the people and their institutions. America is the country itself, the land and water. As citizens of the nation, we can be patriots. As human beings in the natural world of North America, I hope we can learn to be matriots," said Norman. "Through this film, I hope millions of people will learn to love America as a place, the living nature of it, love it enough to care for this beautiful place on earth."